The Suez Canal: Witness to a Great History
The history of the Suez Canal is turbulent and colorful enough to boldly become the basis of an exciting movie. There is room for ancient origins, big dreams, politics, big money, wars and even an unusual love story.
The Suez Canal is one of the most important waterways in the world . Its creation was made possible by the specific location of the continents and especially by the shape of the Red Sea. The Red Sea, long and narrow, squeezes between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, separating them from each other and reaching Suez . From here to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe is just over 150 kilometers (the total length of the Suez Canal is 163 kilometers). In comparison, the road from London to India, bypassing the canal and skirting the African continent, is longer by more than seven thousand kilometers.
The first plans
It is no coincidence that plans to cut through the desert and facilitate transport in these parts have been dreamed of since ancient times. The first mention of projects to connect the Nile to the Red Sea dates back to the second millennium BC, but the real engineering work was carried out only in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The first ruler who wrote about himself completing the construction of the canal was the legendary Persian king Darius I, who lived at the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. After that, the new waterway functioned with varying success until Roman times and was finally closed in 767 by the caliph Al-Mansur, who cut off the grain supply to the rebellious cities.
The first plans
Creating the Suez Canal
Only during the Napoleonic era did the idea of uniting the two seas and two continents return. And then politics intervened in the story. Since the idea of building a canal came from Bonaparte’s camp, the British met it with reluctance, although it was they who benefited most from the shortening of the sea route from London to the colony. In addition, an unfortunate mistake occurred . During engineering work begun in 1799, Charles Le Pere concluded that during floods the difference in levels between the seas could reach ten meters, so locks were required in the construction of the canal. This mistake delayed work on the Suez Canal for nearly half a century! In the end, the plague epidemic of 1835 forced the assembled engineers and scientists to flee, but left behind the most precious thing of all – a great dream. That great dreamer was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a young French diplomat who was fascinated by plans for the Suez Canal and determined to make them a reality. He probably did not think that he would devote more than 30 years of his life to it.
De Lesseps approached the matter practically – he decided to create a joint-stock company and obtain a government loan. He managed to buy a license to build the Isthmus of Suez from the Egyptian Viceroy Mohamed Said Pasha in 1854. Construction work began in 1859, and the canal was opened exactly ten years later . These are just dry dates, but one can only imagine the hardships de Lesseps fought. Endless technical, bureaucratic and organizational problems, periodic cholera and fever epidemics that claimed the lives of workers (about 25,000), the problem of drinking water (eventually delivered by a purpose-built canal), melting finances and the continuing boycott of the entire project by the authorities.
The opening of the Suez Canal took place on November 17, 1869, and was an international event of the highest order. Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Eugenie, among others, came to Egypt, and the composer Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned to perform the opera Aida. 1869 was definitely the happiest year of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ life. He finished his life’s work, became a member of the French Academy, was awarded the Legion of Honor, and married. He was 65 years old and his sweetheart, Otar de Bragar, the daughter of a former Mauritian official, was only 20. The marriage turned out to be remarkably successful; suffice it to say that the couple had 12 children.
Creating the Suez Canal
The War for the Suez Canal
From then on, the Suez Canal became a subject of political rivalry, which it remains to this day. In 1956, even another war over it, known as the Suez Canal War, broke out. After Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the canal, Britain and France lost control of the crossing, and Israeli merchant ships could not use it. As a result, a joint Israeli-British-French army attacked Egypt, which lost nearly all its equipment in the fighting and its army ceased to exist.
Reconstruction of the Suez Canal
However, the biggest problem in recent decades has been the economy. More and more ships of impressive size were passing through the Suez Canal. For the largest tankers it was getting too crowded. Hence the decision to build a new Suez Canal. Or rather, its second branch, parallel to the first, which relieved the old canal and allowed traffic in both directions at the same time. The new Suez Canal is in a sense a symbol of today . The design of the fairway has been integrated into the design of several road and rail tunnels to facilitate communication with the Sinai Peninsula. The plan is not to forget the creation in the immediate vicinity of a special industrial zone with a turnover of about a hundred billion dollars a year. The entire construction of the New Suez Canal lasted only one year (August 2014-August 2015). Ferdinand de Lesseps would have erupted in jealousy.
A French viscount and 120,000 dead men. How the Suez Canal was built
The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea and is the shortest waterway between the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean’s Mediterranean Sea, is the most important artery of world trade. Egypt’s revenues from transiting ships through Suez totaled about $6 billion in 2018.
Today it is very difficult to imagine the world without the Suez Canal. Nevertheless, the project of its construction was implemented relatively recently, in the second half of the XIX century.
The “Canal of the Pharaohs” and Napoleon’s powerlessness
The idea of a canal dates back to antiquity and was first implemented at the same time. The so-called “Pharaohs’ Canal”, which connected the Gulf of Suez of the Red Sea with the Nile, was built in the II millennium BC.
Subsequently, the canal was restored several times by both Egyptians and conquerors, until it finally ceased to exist in the 8th century AD.
In 1798, during the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon became seriously interested in building a canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The commission of engineer Leper estimated the cost of implementing the project at 40 million francs. However, in 1800 Napoleon, having received a report from the engineers, said: “This is a great undertaking, but I am unable to carry it out at the present time; maybe the Turkish government will take it up one day, will create the glory and will strengthen the existence of the Turkish Empire.
Viscount de Lesseps’ Connections
Half a century later, the need for a canal had grown considerably. The development of capitalist relations accelerated life in general and demanded faster movement of goods around the globe.
The route to Asian countries around Africa no longer suited European entrepreneurs. There was, of course, an alternative: goods arriving in the Mediterranean ports of the Levant were transported overland to the coast of the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf and then loaded back onto the ships. However, such logistics were not convenient either.
In the 1840s, the idea of the project was in the air. Among those who tried to grab hold of it first was Ferdinand Marc, Viscount de Lesseps. This French diplomat had worked in Egypt in the 1830s and had developed strong connections with the local authorities.
In 1854 Mohammed Said Pasha, who had long known and treated Lesseps well, became the pasha of Egypt. In 1855 Said Pasha approved the idea of establishing a company for the purpose of building a sea canal open to ships of all nations.
Said Pasha’s decision was confirmed by a firmament of the Turkish Sultan, but it was not enough. Lesseps needed funds for construction.
To some, profit; to others, death.
In 1859 the General Company of the Suez Canal was founded in Paris. 53% of the stock company’s shares were given to France, only 44% to the Egyptian government and 3% to other nations. In this case, the shareholders retained 74% of profits, 15% went directly to Egypt.
Egypt assumed the obligation to transfer the ownership of the canal to the company for 99 years. In addition, the Egyptian authorities undertook to provide at least 80 percent of the necessary labor, as well as transportation and necessary equipment for the construction.
On April 25, 1859, construction began. Many historians have noted that its success was largely due to the energy and perseverance of Viscount de Lesseps.
Less is said and written about the sweat, blood and tears of the workers.
Most of the construction, which stretched for ten years, the work was carried out without the means of mechanization. The canal was dug with shovels, in the blazing sun, in desert conditions, with an acute shortage of drinking water. The 164 kilometer long route through swamps, deserts and salt marshes was for many the last. The Egyptian authorities drove tens of thousands of people to the site. Many were not destined to return home. Some historians believe that about 120,000 workers died during the ten years of construction of the Suez Canal.
Verdi was too late.
A total of about 75 million cubic meters of soil was moved. The cost that was called at the time by the Leper Commission was nowhere near what it actually was. The Suez Canal cost 575 million francs, which is about $9 billion at 21st century prices.
To be fair, the efforts of Viscount de Lesseps by the middle of construction solved the fresh water issue by bringing a freshwater canal to the route. And in the last years of the work even excavators appeared in Egypt.
The total length of the canal was about 173 km, including the length of the canal itself through the Isthmus of Suez 161 km, the sea canal on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea – 9.2 km and the Gulf of Suez – about 3 km. The width of the canal on the water surface is 120-150 m, on the bottom-45-60 m.
The inauguration of the canal took place on November 17, 1869. It was an event of great international importance. French Empress Eugenie, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Prince of Prussia, the writers Emile Zola, Theophile Gautier, Henrik Ibsen and others took part. Russia was represented by Count Nikolai Ignatiev, the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
The celebration lasted seven days and nights and cost Egypt another 28 million gold francs. The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned by Ismail Pasha, who succeeded Said Pasha, to write an opera, Aida, to be performed at the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi, however, did not meet the deadline, so the opera’s premiere was replaced by a celebratory ball.
“Panama”: how Ferdinand de Lesseps’ second canal turned into a scandal
The completion of the construction turned Ferdinand de Lesseps into a worldwide star. In 1869 he became a Knight of the Legion of Honor, an honorary member of the Royal English Society, a member of the French Academy.
In 1880 the General Company of the Panama Interoceanic Canal was founded, Ferdinand Lesseps became its president and general director and his son, Charles Lesseps, became its vice president.
Lesseps Sr. was believed, remembering the success of the Suez Canal. More than 800,000 people bought shares in the company. Construction, however, stalled, because of the ill-conceived nature of the project and also because of the extremely difficult conditions. While in Egypt the workers were plagued by unbearable heat and thirst, in Panama disease, most notably malaria and yellow fever. In 1888, when work was only one-third completed, construction was halted. On February 4, 1889, the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Panama Company was officially declared.
An investigation launched by the French authorities revealed waste, negligence, incompetence and corruption in the highest echelons of power. The expression “panama” has become synonymous with grand fraud, first in France and later in other countries.
Ferdinand Lesseps was put on trial and sentenced to five years in prison and a fine. But he was not sent behind bars, taking into account his 87-year-old age and previous merits.
Viscount de Lesseps died in 1894. He had 17 children, but the Suez Canal remained his main child forever.